By Madeleine Niebauer, founder and CEO of vChief, a virtual chief-of-staff service, helping executives stay focused on what matters most.
As we slowly start reemerging from the pandemic in the coming months, it’s likely we will see some of the many women who have taken time off returning to the workplace. I hope that the collective experience of the workplace suddenly going virtual will encourage many employers to offer more of the flexibility that will help keep them happy and successful there.
What I’ve found in our work focused on the chief-of-staff role is that it can help propel women into the highest levels of leadership. I find that women are well-suited to the role, and the opportunity to shine within the C-suite sets them up for success down the road.
A Good Fit
Women’s personalities are typically well-suited to the role — almost like they were made for each other. Here are just a few examples:
• High EQ: The innate ability of many women to stay in tune with those around us, lead calmly in times of crisis and adjust to changing circumstances are all key ingredients in an effective chief of staff.
• Multitasking: Chiefs of staff are often called on to be “jugglers,” handling multiple priorities, putting out various fires at once and just generally taking on anything that the CEO or executive doesn’t have the bandwidth for. Have you ever watched a mom in action for more than five minutes? This is what women do.
• Communication: According to research presented in Forbes, women excel at listening, reading body language and nonverbal cues and empathizing with those they’re communicating with. Chiefs of staff are often called on to communicate with various stakeholders with the overarching mission of influencing positive outcomes for the organization.
• Attention To Details: Women tend to pay attention to the details and create systems of organization to keep them all straight. This is the bread-and-butter of a chief-of-staff role.
• Being The “Second Brain”: Because women are typically thought to be better listeners and more likely to pick up on nonverbal cues, they can be the ideal “second brain” of your organization — with eyes and ears attuned to everything that is going on within.
A Stepping Stone Into Leadership
Women continue to shatter glass ceilings and make their presence known in leadership roles, but we still have a long way to go to get near an equitable place with men. (Unfortunately, the pandemic has had a negative effect on some of these gains, too, which we’ll address a little later.)
According to a McKinsey study on women in the workplace, “At the beginning of 2020, the representation of women in corporate America was trending in the right direction. This was most pronounced in senior management: between January 2015 and January 2020, representation of women… in the C-suite grew from 17 to 21 percent. Women remained dramatically underrepresented — particularly women of color — but the numbers were slowly improving.”
As the chief-of-staff role continues to gain notoriety expanding to the startup and entrepreneurial realms, the need for more qualified individuals continues to grow. This is the ideal place for women to gain a stronghold into the inner workings of an organization’s leadership. For many chiefs of staff, the role is a two-year stepping stone into the C-suite, a dynamic space where women can continue to excel and contribute.
Here are a few notable chiefs of staff (CoSs) who have moved into higher roles, as shared on CNBC: “Just consider: Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, was Larry Summers’ CoS when he was U.S. Treasury Secretary. Aileen Lee, now head of Cowboy Ventures, a VC firm in Palo Alto, California, filled the same position for Mickey Drexler when he ran The Gap. And Aretae Wyler, former CoS to Atlantic Media founder David Bradley, is now general counsel and chief administrative officer of the company.”
Just One Problem
As aforementioned, the pandemic has been especially challenging to women in the workplace, specifically mothers. The McKinsey study referenced earlier explains that almost 3 million women left the workforce in 2020, many due to challenges created by the Covid-19 crisis. Some of the reasons given for this included:
• “lack of flexibility at work
• “feeling like they need to be available to work at all hours, or ‘always on’
• “housework and caregiving burdens due to Covid-19
• “worry that their performance is being negatively judged because of caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic
• “difficulty sharing with their teammates or managers the challenges they are facing
• “feeling blindsided by decisions that affect their day-to-day work
• “feeling unable to bring their whole self to work”
Women tend to especially feel the impact of these dual responsibilities of caregiving and managing their careers. But why? Why does it look like this? What can we do to break out of this barrier? Finding supportive partners who equally bear the burden of responsibilities is one step. Advocating for flexible and culturally responsive workplaces is another.
We know from personal experience that women are impactful, powerful, smart leaders whose compassionate lens can be a determining factor in successful organizations. But we need to do better in allowing women to succeed in the workplace through leadership roles while also being able to tend to the outside responsibilities that are important to them.